In his 20s, Irish photographer Richard Mosse made his first foray into photojournalism by capturing postwar Balkan nations. This experience led to a realisation that the medium was inadequately suited to capture complex, layered narratives. “You have to put the thing in front of the camera, and when that thing is an abstraction, far bigger than a human figure, it’s very difficult to do,” he explained in a recent podcast with Monocle.
The subjects he found himself covering over the next two decades were equally abstract and complex as the first, ranging from conflict in DR Congo to the refugee crisis in Europe. However, in his search for ways to subvert the medium and bend it to his will, he eventually managed to create his own unique brand of photography, characterised by the use of infra-red film and other technology rooted in military reconnaissance.
In 2019, this longstanding interest led him to conflict of a different kind, and to the beginnings of his latest project, Tristes Tropiques. News reports around that time of fires ravaging the Brazilian Amazon following years of deforestation caught Mosse’s attention. Intensive cattle and soybean farming had devastated the rainforest, and a full-scale ecological crisis was under way. He began to wonder how he could yet again push the boundaries of his craft to capture a subject as large as this one. “How can a modest camera tell such a hideously complex story that unfolds over many years, involving numerous processes that can often be very difficult to perceive in time and space? How can I find a lens wide enough?” he asked himself. The answer came to him in the form of a multispectral camera.
Fitted to a drone, he was able to fly this camera over sites of destruction and environmental crime, imaging the ground below to capture bandwidths of reflected light, many of which are invisible to the human eye. These spectral bands, which contain environmental data, could then be interpreted using geographic interpretation software (GIS) which assigns them into the visible RGB colour space of the final image. Experimenting with different colour combinations by reassigning the bands, Mosse was able to create vivid topographies that reveal traces of environmental damage and degradation.
“Some are incredibly aesthetic, producing rich lipstick reds and purples along the riverbanks of a charred forest, showing quite clearly the stress to remaining plant life, some of which was half burned, and in the process of dying. The colours are often quite electric, yet, articulated over such highly detailed organic landscapes, the resulting images feel very fragile. This work conveys frangible organic matter dominated by extractive violence at the hand of man. They are living maps, showing signs of life, but evoke die-back, tipping points and ecocide,” he writes.
This advanced technology, typically used by environmental scientists to study the effects of climate change on the rainforest, is also employed by large agribusiness corporations looking to profit from the land, and it provided Mosse with a unique way of engaging with the subject: “I felt this technology would help me to observe aspects of deforestation in the Amazon in a powerful way, as it lies on a crossroads between extractive environmental exploitation on the one hand, and the powerful remote sensing tools we depend on to mobilize the international community [to regulate deforestation] on the other,” he explains. By harnessing this medium for the purposes of storytelling, Mosse could transcend the usual depictions of the Amazon on fire and instead reveal to us the more gradual processes of destruction that are taking place in the region.
These processes, which sometimes unfold over the course of several years, include the clearing of land for “never-ending fazendas” and “soybean fields without a single hedgerow that are intensively harvested three times a year”. However, it’s not just deforestation that damages the surrounding area – Mosse’s images also show how hydroelectric dams, along with Brazil’s sprawling gold mining industry, have ravaged river systems and scarred the terrain, often tearing through protected national parks and indigenous reserves. The project also includes a map of the Norwegian-owned Hydro Alunorte plant in Barcarena, a small municipality in north-east Brazil, which is one of the world’s largest aluminum refineries. In 2018, the Guardian published a report on the plant that suggested it was responsible for the contamination of local water sources and the poisoning of fish and other produce. In Mosse’s diptych Alumina Refinery, the top image shows the extensive layout of the main site, positioned near the edge of Marapatá Bay, while the bottom image shows the connected reject basin, coloured with a sickly pink hue.
“This mineral reject basin is said to have overflowed, allegedly polluting the water aquifer and poisoning many people as well as the environment,” explains Mosse. “So, in choosing which bands to reassign for this diptych, I wanted to create a powerfully aesthetic image that evokes the form of a diseased organ overwhelming the neighbouring community.”
Images such as these show us the ways in which the excessive extraction of natural resources is damaging one of the world’s most important ecosystems, but they also help to identify the major contrasts between how land is used by indigenous communities and how it is used by the west. Alongside this diptych, images like Intensive Cattle Feedlot depict the invasive architecture of meat production that dominates huge tracts of land in the Amazon – “the intense rectilinear ribcage form of this map shows the successive ponds dug to process the combined ordure of 40,000 cattle,” writes Mosse.
By contrast, Aldeia Enawenê-nawê maps the layout of the village of the Enawenê-nawê tribe, who live in harmony with their surroundings, eating only fish and vegetables and creating very little waste. He goes on: “I think these forms, which reveal the lived environment, show us a great deal about diametrically opposite approaches to land use and the effects they are having in the Amazon Basin.”
It was this kind of observation that led Mosse to title the project Tristes Tropiques. Taken from a book of the same name by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, it translates as “sad tropics”, and may be a reference to a creeping western influence that had reached the Amazonian tribes he encountered in the Brazilian interior in the 1930s. “I felt very moved by his observations and to my great surprise, I found that his journeys were similar enough to some of my own, almost a century later, in terms of the axes he travelled along,” recalls Mosse.
“While he predicted this future, I wonder how he would feel if he could retrace his route today and be confronted by what these parts of Brazil have become.”
Mosse’s reflection on the work of Lévi-Strauss and its parallels with his own, reveals both how much has changed since the anthropologist wandered the Amazon, and at the same time just how little. It is a sad realisation that these words, taken from his 1955 book, are as relevant now as they were then: “For those of us who are earth-bound Europeans, our adventurings into the heart of the New World have a lesson to teach us: that the New World was not ours to destroy, and yet we destroyed it; and that no other will be vouchsafed to us. In grasping these truths we come face to face with ourselves.”